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How These High-Schoolers Got Inspired to Fight for Trafficking Victims: 'There's Actually Something That Can Be Done'

02-12-2020
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Smithfield High School students are learning about human trafficking.

SMITHFIELD, Virginia - When the students in Mr. Ployd's government class at Smithfield High School hear Monica Charleston's story, they get fired up.

The trafficking survivor has not only overcome the trauma of sexual exploitation as a teenager, but a criminal record based on charges from those years. 

"I had about 177 arrests for prostitution in the state of New York alone, not counting the other states I was trafficked in," she told CBN News during a recent interview after speaking to Matthew Ployd's students.

In 2015, Charleston was able to clear her record in New York through a process known as expungement. That opened the door for her to pursue jobs and volunteer work that often requires background checks.

There are other benefits as well. "I'm now able to vote," Charleston said. "I can apply for places to live since my record has been expunged. I can be around children without them doing a background and having my history, past arrest record brought up. It's just given me so much freedom."

Charleston went on to found Kaleidoscope International, a non-profit that advocates for victims.

And she and Ployd are on a mission to educate his students about the horrors of modern-day trafficking and the complexities of navigating for change at the state and federal level.

It all started when Ployd met Charleston and invited her to speak to his students, hoping to give them a practical civics lesson on just one issue that lawmakers grapple with. 

His students soaked up Charleston's story, which includes not just the horror of being trafficked and escaping from her pimp, but the burden of her criminal record.

Senior India Glover said that learning about Charleston's life helped her to understand the issue. "Her story really kind of showed me that people really are truly not just affected during human trafficking, but they're affected for years, even lifetimes after."

Ployd watched his students engage with Charleston and decided to take the civics lesson a step further, encouraging them to think creatively about how to respond to the issue.

What has followed is a variety of projects including efforts to lobby lawmakers.

"Hearing Monica's story of expungement seemed to be such a huge keystone to what freed her," said Ployd. "Even leaving her trafficker she still wasn't free because she was still burdened and chained down and manacled by her past."

In Washington, D.C. both the House and the Senate are currently considering the Trafficking Survivor's Relief Act to help victims and many states have already begun work to help these survivors clear their records. Still, advocates say there's much more to do.

In 40 states and the District of Columbia, lawmakers have passed some type of legislation that provides protection for trafficking victims to begin to ensure that their exploitation as minors can't be used against them as adults. But Sarah Breyer, policy counsel for Shared Hope International, told CBN News that the laws vary greatly from state to state and that loopholes still create major obstacles for victims. 

Breyer noted that in Virginia, for example, victims must wait five years to apply for expungement and there's no vacatur law that would completely destroy the records and take away the actual conviction. Without a vacatur law, law enforcement and the criminal justice system can still access the records to consider prior offenses when making charges and sentencing decisions.

Last month, some of Ployd's students went with Charleston to Richmond, the Virginia state capital, to lobby lawmakers on behalf of trafficking victims. 

And they showed their appreciation for her by writing and producing a song and giving her gifts. It's a government lesson that's turned practical and personal, showing students how they can make a difference.

"There's actually something that can be done," said senior Charles Cutler. "Let's do something about it."

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